June 4, 2012

Looking down from a Desert Monastery | Egyptian Deserts

Looking down from a Desert Monastery, 1833
Robert Curzon

Egyptian Deserts
To those who are not familiar with the aspect of such a region as this, it may be well to explain that a desert such as that which now surrounded me resembles more than anything else a dusty turnpike-road in England on a hot summer’s day, extended interminably, both as to length and breadth. A country of low rounded hills, the surface of which is composed entirely of gravel, dust, and stones, will give a good idea of the general aspect of a desert. Yet although parched and dreary in the extreme from their vastness and openness, there is something grand and sublime in the silence and loneliness of these burning plains; and the wandering tribes of Bedouins who inhabit them are seldom content to remain long in the narrow confines of cultivated land. There is always a fresh breeze in the desert, except when the terrible hot wind blows; and the air is more elastic and pure than where vegetation produces exhalations which in all hot climates are more or less heavy and deleterious. The air of the desert is always healthy, and no race of man enjoy a greater exemption from weakness, sickness, and disease than the children of the desert, who pass their lives in wandering to and fro in search of the scanty herbage on which their flocks are fed, far from the cares and troubles of busy cities, and free from the oppression which grinds down the half-starved cultivators of the fertile soil of Egypt.

Whilst from my elevated position I looked out on my left upon the mighty desert, on my right how different was the scene! There below my feet lay the convent garden in all the fresh luxuriance of tropical; vegetation. Tufts upon tufts of waving palms over-shadowed the immense succulent leaves of the banana, which in their turn rose out of the thickets of the pomegranate rich with the bright green leaves and its blossoms of that beautiful and vivid red which is excelled by few even of the most brilliant flowers of the East. These were contrasted with the deep dark green of the caroub or locust-tree; and the yellow apples of the lotus vied with the clusters of green limes with their sweet white flowers which luxuriated in a climate too hot and sultry for the golden fruit of the orange, which is not to be met with in the valley of the Nile. Flowers and fair branches exhaling rich perfume and bearing freshness in their very aspect became more beautiful from their contrast to the dreary arid plains outside the convent walls, and this great difference was owing solely to there being a well of water in this spot, from which a horse or mule was constantly employed to draw the fertilising stream which nourished the teeming vegetation of the monastic garden.

I stood gazing and moralizing at these contrasted scenes for some time. . . .

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